- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 7, 2007

12:42 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan soldiers caught a senior Taliban commander, who was wearing a burqa, at a checkpoint while NATO forces today fought Taliban militants in the second day of the alliance’s largest-ever offensive in Afghanistan.

Mullah Mahmood, who is accused of helping the Taliban detonate suicide bombs, was caught yesterday in Kandahar province while wearing the all-encompassing Islamic veil worn here by women, NATO said.

“Alert [Afghan] soldiers at this checkpoint spotted the oddity and quickly arrested him,” NATO said.

Mullah Mahmood was caught trying to leave the Panjwayi area of Kandahar province — the site of a large NATO battle last fall where hundreds of Taliban fighters were killed, NATO said.

“The capture of this senior Taliban extremist is another indicator that a more normal life is returning to the Zhari and Panjwayi districts and a testament to the great work the [Afghan army] is achieving,” said Maj. Gen. Ton van Loon, the southern commander of NATO-led troops.

Meanwhile, some 5,500 NATO and Afghan soldiers fought Taliban militants in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, the world’s biggest poppy-growing region. NATO hopes the operation can help establish security in a lawless region ruled by a Taliban shadow government and drug traffickers.

“We’ve established a presence, and in some areas it’s a heavy presence, and we’re trying to disrupt the Taliban’s senior leadership in the area … to separate them from trying to rally” the Taliban’s locally recruited soldiers, said Col. Tom Collins, the spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.

One British soldier and four Taliban fighters were killed yesterday, the operation’s opening day.

Today, Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces arrested a suspected al Qaeda bomb expert and five other terrorist suspects in eastern Afghanistan.

The U.S.-led coalition had information indicating “a suspected terrorist with strong ties to al Qaeda” and to a group that helped militants along Afghanistan’s border region was inside an eastern Afghan compound near Jalalabad, a U.S. statement said.

“The suspected terrorist was a [bomb-making] expert and logistics officer for the Tora Bora Front, which facilitates the movement of fighters from Pakistan to Afghanistan,” the statement said. No shots were fired and no one was hurt during the raid.